It is difficult to comprehend, in 2022, the sheer number of hours I spent shooting, editing, and preparing to show this short not quite five minute movie, my capstone project for the undergraduate seminar English 284, “Popular Narrative: Comics, Films & Television,” a course taught by Donald Ault in 1988. Shot on 8mm silent color film, edited by hand, and finally, nervously projected while simultaneously playing on a nearby CD player the instrumental song, “The Brazilian,” by Genesis, Exit Only is, if nothing else, a testament to the value and privilege of a liberal arts education. I loved that class, not least because students were given such a wide berth when thinking about how to apply what we learned from our readings and lectures.
Professor Ault dispassionately blew my mind every week as we deconstructed (without calling it that – remember this was 1988) the art and methods of storytelling in popular art forms (mostly comics). I couldn’t get enough and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and apply what I had learned in a non-traditional way for the final class project. The experience still reverberates.
An obvious, cited influence was Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982). That film, as for so many, opened my eyes to how an experimental approach to the craft of storytelling could have such an impact and how film language itself was far from calcified. I also, simply, fell in love with the film’s astonishing images, the result of film speed manipulation and intentional, subtle camera movements. To be clear: Exit Only is no Koyaanisqatsi, but it unabashedly attempts to create a kindred grammar composed of an intentional accumulation of images, cutting between different filmed sequences, with varying timing, stretched non-linearly over the course of an imagined single day.
With so much raw footage, taken on campus and at various locations throughout Nashville, I needed a framework to help me lay out how the sequences would be assembled. I kept coming back to “The Brazilian.” The song had the perfect combination of dynamism and contrast. Given its underlying mechanical-sounding loop sequence — making a perhaps too obvious a connection to the stop-motion aesthetic of the time-lapse photography as well as my overt commentary on life’s daily repetition and patterns — the song easily delivered the formal structure I was seeking.
Digital filmmaking today escapes much of the hard work this project required and avoids the many technical mistakes which could not be corrected in post-production. Choices I agonized over are now decided with the push of a button, and then undone if the results don’t satisfy. Magic! Certainly both have their place, but access to the requisite tools, the technical know-how, and, importantly, audiences and fellow enthusiasts, is dramatically different today. This access raises the bar on what can be achieved but also what can be discarded, which can be surprisingly counter-productive, as I have commented elsewhere when talking about the lack of scarcity that digital art can perpetuate and represent. While I don’t pretend to long for the good old days of analog media production — I welcomed the arrival of and continue to embrace
all most things digital — I admit there is something inescapably satisfying when I watch Exit Only and think back to the materiality of the experience making it: the uncooperative stickiness of the splicing tape, the clatter of the classroom projector, even the whir of the CD queuing up, waiting patiently for me to press Play.
Nomadland wants to be a film about precarity and poverty, but it is in fact a film about Frances McDormand’s skill as an actor.
Shonni Enelow’s short essay “Toil and Trouble” written for Film Comment’s email newsletter captures precisely what I felt after watching Nomadland. I was constantly aware of McDormand the actor and was left unconvinced by the film’s muddle of narrative conventions.1 By pressing on how Shakespeare is narrowly invoked, Enelow offers a refreshing read of the filmmakers’ blindness to their own participation in the inequalities and exploitation they hope to reveal and subvert.
Representation is hard.
- I would have preferred the essayistic film grammar and Brechtian artifice of Godard, though that is likely still too much for the Academy to swallow. ↩
How we experience moving images, including today’s streaming services, and the impact it has had on modes of film production and film style is fascinating and always evolving. But, as Randall Stross points out, many film scholars and historians, including history John Belton (who knows more about the history of film exhibition than most), want to make a distinction between what constitutes a cinematic experience and mere movie watching.
Two lists, from her book I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections, “What I Won’t Miss” and “What I Will Miss.” RIP.
Rest in peace, and thank you for the films you leave with us.
Teju Cole, to the point:
Kieślowski, who grew up under Communist rule, in Poland, was unembarrassed by big questions.
Adopting an auteurist perspective on all that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking, Soderbergh goes too far by dismissing the role of the audience in defining what sets ‘cinema’ apart from mere movies.
Speaking at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, for its State of Cinema address, Steven Soderbergh offered the following definition of cinema (emphasis mine) as part of his general assessment of today’s Hollywood film industry:
The simplest way that I can describe it is that a movie is something you see, and cinema is something that’s made. It has nothing to do with the captured medium, it doesn’t have anything to do with where the screen is, if it’s in your bedroom, your iPad, it doesn’t even really have to be a movie. It could be a commercial, it could be something on YouTube. Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitrary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint. It isn’t made by a committee, and it isn’t made by a company, and it isn’t made by the audience. It means that if this filmmaker didn’t do it, it either wouldn’t exist at all, or it wouldn’t exist in anything like this form.
He later adds . . .
But the problem is that cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience.
Writing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott suggests that Soderbergh’s self-described rant is more about the realization of his much-publicized retirement from traditional filmmaking and embrace of other modes of cinematic production (e.g., television and even Twitter) in order to express one’s “vision” than a fully baked notion of cinema with a capital C. His embrace of new technologies, especially in terms of where and how cinema might be encountered (say, in contrast to David Lynch’s colorful and unambiguous contempt for watching movies on mobile phones) is open-minded and provocative, though risks too broad a stroke; as Scott points out, Soderbergh uses the term [cinema] “more or less as a synonym for art”.
Yet, I find it curious, along with a casual dismissal of generic conventions and the accidental (“arbitrary”) aspects of the creative process, he is quick to implicate those who would feed him, his audience, to adopt a seemingly old school auteurist view, where movies attain the status of cinematic endeavor at the hands of their director-author, especially because of his or her (not necessarily literal) struggle with an indifferent, even hostile studio system. Soderbergh further contends the narrowing of options for filmmakers today goes beyond the studio executive’s stereotypical intolerance for ambiguity and narrative complexity, and is symptomatic of an American appetite for escapism in response to 9/11, the trauma of which still haunts the box office, if not our everyday lives.
When the Lumières first exhibited their new invention the cinématographe and accompanying short films, including La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon (1895), in Paris on December 28, 1895, the idea of cinema (as the intersection of a paying audience watching moving images projected on a screen) was born. Since then, I’m not sure there has ever been a time when its identity, especially in terms of how films should be presented and truly experienced, hasn’t been in some sort of crisis; for example in response to the emergence of television and the “domestication” of cinema during the 1950s and 1960s or the advent of cable television, VCRs and laser discs in the early 1980s, to name just two of the better known threats. Today, cinema is experiencing redefinition through the lens of the Internet, tablet computers and iPhones, and digital projection. I am thankful for Soderbergh’s candid and obviously passionate observations concerning the economic realities of contemporary Hollywood but I also think it is important not to discount the role of the audience as we contemplate what makes cinema (beyond aesthetics, tools, and authorship). As with new methods for the signature production and mass distribution of something that might be considered cinematic (per Soderbergh’s qualifications), new audiences also emerge and are equally relevant to cinema’s continuing evolution and transformation.